How much of this season is on Jim Rutherford?

This past season wasn’t quite what the Hurricanes fans were hoping for. In fact, it was a lot worse than most of us were expecting and now the finger pointing game has begun with a lot of fans criticisms directed towards General Manager Jim Rutherford. There’s definitely a lot of reasons to be upset right now. The Hurricanes have failed to make the playoffs the last three seasons and have finished in the bottom-10 of the league in two of the last three seasons.

How much heat does Rutherford deserve for the Hurricanes problems, though? He’s been with the organization for almost 20 years so it’s tough to rate his whole body of work, but what we can do is look at some of his recent moves to see how much of Carolina’s struggles are on him. Over the last few years, Rutherford has done a mix of both good and bad things for the Hurricanes so it’s tough to place the blame solely on him. After the jump, we will take a look at some of those moves and talk about what JR has to do to make the Hurricanes a winning team again.

Looking at this most recent season, I am not sure it is fair to completely blame Rutherford for the Hurricaners being as terrible as they were. I know that they were one game away from reaching the playoffs the year before, but the team still wasn’t very good. To show that, here are some of the team’s even strength numbers over the last three years.

Year FenClose EV Sh% EV Sv%
2009-10 47.6% 8.5% 0.91
2010-11 46.7% 8.3% 0.921
2011-12 48.2% 7.6% 0.918

The Canes were actually a worse team last season and the only reason they came so close to a playoff spot was because of how well Cam Ward played for most of the year. His save percentage took a nose-dive during November of this season and uncoincidentally, the Canes also found themselves towards the bottom of the standings during that month too.

Rutherford got fooled by the percentages this year just like Bob Murray did in Anaheim and decided to keep Paul Maurice around and tried to acquire pieces that could help get the Canes into the playoffs. Unfortunately, one of those pieces ended up being Tomas Kaberle, a third pairing defenseman who is getting worse with age and we all know how that ended. The Kaberle signing was a gigantic mistake and the only thing I completely blame on Rutherford this season. Even then, he was able to dump Kaberle’s awful contract on Pierre Gauthier’s hands in exchange for an expiring deal in Jaroslav Spacek

Aside from that, it’s hard for me to put too much of the blame on Rutherford for the Hurricanes recent problems. It isn’t his fault that Eric Staal fell into a shooting percentage rut for most of the first half of the season or that Cam Ward played like a retread during that time, too. The defense was also a big problem but the defense corps is undergoing a rebuilding process as we speak and are going to take their lumps. Re-signing Gleason for four years was an important move because he is the team’s best defensive d-man and we are going to need him once the younger players come in.

Yes, him choosing not to re-sign Erik Cole looks bad now after his career season in Montreal but put yourself in JR’s shoes on July 1st. Cole was about to turn 33 and was probably looking for a deal that paid at least $4 mil. per year. Most forwards production usually descends in their 30’s, so it’s understandable why Rutherford didn’t want to take a risk on him. Plus, who really thought that Cole would be a 30+ goal scorer this year? He’s gotten some help in Montreal because he plays on one of their more sheltered lines, but the general consensus was that his production would be declining as he gets older. We might all be wrong on that but I do understand why Rutherford didn’t want to take a risk on re-signing Cole to a big contract. Although, he did contradict himself a bit by re-signing Tuomo Ruutu to essentially the same deal a few months later but Ruutu is a little younger.

The other criticism directed at him is that he ignored filling the void at winger on the first line and while I understand that, I don’t think it’s fair to say that he ignored the need here. Rutherford knows that the team had Zac Dalpe and Zach Boychuk in the system and the thought was that both would make the Canes out of camp and possibly play on the first line. Dalpe made the team and got injured during camp while Boychuk failed to make much of an impression at all. Is it Rutherford’s fault that neither of his supposed “top prospects” lived up to standards. You can blame him for not drafting well enough but the training staff and scouts deserve some of the blame too. All Rutherford can do is look at their numbers in junior and their scouting report to see if he’s a right fit for the team. The jury is still out on Dalpe and Boychuk but it’s safe to say that their development is going along a little slower than most fans hoped, mostly Boychuk’s. I still think there’s plenty of time for Dalpe to make the jump because no every prospect is going to be NHL ready at 22.

This is why he signed Alexei Ponikarovsky in the off-season. Rutherford knew that he has prospects that are going to be competing for roster spots so he didn’t want to commit long-term money to anyone. Instead, he signs Ponikarovsky to a short-term deal as a place-holder. Ponikarovsky’s goal scoring touch is gone for the most part, but he does just about everything else well and was a useful piece to the Hurricanes. He was also signed to a low-risk contract and could have been easily moved if he didn’t work out or if Dalpe/Boychuk were ready to take his place. He ended up being traded and the Canes got a somewhat decent return for him considering his numbers. Anthony Stewart is also signed to a low-risk deal that can also be easily moved or swallowed if someone else can replace him.

As for the coaching situation, you can say that Rutherford let Maurice hang around for longer than he should have but what was he supposed to do? Not everything with the team was Maurice’s fault and firing a coach after nearly leading them to the playoffs could have been a bad PR move. Like I said earlier, Rutherford got fooled by the percentages and waited until November to realize that this rebuild needs a different coach. I can’t think of a time that this didn’t happen with a GM aside from Dallas and Marc Crawford last year.

The Hurricanes fall from grace ever since the 2008-09 season looks bad, but take a look at the age of the main players on that roster. Ray Whitney, Sergei Samsonov, Rod Brind’Amour, Matt Cullen and Joe Corvo were all over 30 years old and so were other players like Niclas Wallin, Scott Walker and Frank Kaberle. When the team’s core begins their age, their play usually drops along with it (aside from Detroit because they are just awesome all-around) and that was one of the reasons why Carolina struggled so much the following season. The bombardment of injuries that they suffered didn’t help matters. The only mistake I think Rutherford made that season was not trading Ray Whitney because his value was high then and he wasn’t going to re-sign.

Rutherford is taking the steps to make the Hurricanes a better team in the future. The defense is currently rebuilding and should be very good in another couple years once Brian Dumoulin, Ryan Murphy and Justin Faulk are all on the team together. The forward corps should receive a boost this year with the draft and hopefully Dalpe on the team full-time. I will say that he needs to be careful with this “mission to find a first line winger” because the market is extremely shallow right now and it could lead to him overpaying for a fringe top-six player, something we have too much of right now.

Something that I think should be addressed is signing a 2nd/3rd pairing shutdown defenseman for a year or two because Allen is going to leave a big hole to fill and I’m not sure that we can trust those tough minutes to a rookie just yet. Rutherford should look for someone that can hold the fort down for another year or two until Dumoulin & Murphy are ready. I’m pretty sure that is doable and not terribly risky.

Things haven’t gone the way they were planned, but as a Hurricanes fan, it’s hard to put the blame completely on Rutherford. He’s had his missteps but I think his intentions are in the right place with this rebuild and should have the Hurricanes back in the playoffs within the next couple of years. With how weak the East is, it could be as soon as next season. I am a little skeptical of how he will sign a first line winger, but overall I think he has this team going in the right direction.